After much deliberation, I decided to read Anxious People. It had been on my TBR for the longest time but I kept putting it off because I couldn’t bear to be disappointed. There has been so much hype about Backman, and more specifically, about the book that I was almost afraid to pick it up.Continue reading
Book: The Flat Share
Author: Beth O’Leary
I just finished The Flat Share and I haven’t stopped smiling. Sometimes a simple sweet funny story is all one needs. After Dracula, my last read, this light and fresh book is all I needed to put me in the holiday spirit.Continue reading
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Cather (Cath) and Wren are identical twins whose mother left them when they were eight. Their father is an unstable genius leaving the girls are pretty much on their own.Continue reading
Author: Pankaj Kapoor
I don’t know why I took so long to pick up this book. It is written by an actor I love; an erudite, eloquent, thinking actor. It’s set in my hometown. It has a promising title and gorgeous cover page. I really can’t imagine why I didn’t pick it up earlier.
The last few months as I’ve helped the children with their Hindi school portions, I’ve rediscovered my love for my mother tongue. Perhaps that’s why I decided to read this one in Hindi. Besides, it’s just silly to read a translation when one can well read, understand and appreciate the original language.Continue reading
Book: The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Author: Kelly Barnhill
This is the story of a town, a cursed town. On its outskirts lies a greater forest. In this forest lives a wicked old witch. The witch demands sacrifice and so each year an infant is taken away by the town elders and left in the forest for her. As a result, a fog of sorrow hangs over the town with the townsfolk in a constant state of mourning.
On one such occasion, an infant girl is left in the forest and the witch comes by to pick her up. As it turns out she isn’t a wicked witch at all. She wonders why the townsfolk leave their infants in the forest every year. But she’s a kind-hearted soul and cannot bear to leave them to die. So she takes them away and gives them up to loving homes in faraway cities.Continue reading
Book: The Bluest Eye
Author: Toni Morrison
11-year-old Pecola Breedlove believes she’s ugly. And nothing can change that. Nothing at all. Unless … unless she could trade in her eyes for beautiful blue ones. Now if she had those blue eyes, things would be different; because then, everyone would love her.CONTINUE READING
Book: Red, White & Royal Blue
Author: Casey McQuiston
I fell head over heels in love with the endearing premise of this book even before I read it. The love story of the First Son of the United States and the British Prince — the stuff of dreams. So we have two delightful protagonists, Alex and Henry, with some political intrigue thrown in.
The narrative goes like this:
Alex Claremont the charismatic FSOTUS has hated Prince Henry all his life, or so he likes to believe. Then one day the two meet at a wedding. After an embarrassing misadventure, the two are put together to repair their damaged reputations through a picture-perfect (though fake), instragrammable friendship. That’s when they begin to open up to each other, share the struggles of constantly being in the public eye and lo and behold! sparks fly.
However, as always, the path of true love cannot but be strewn with thorns. Given their positions, the thorns are pricklier than ever.
Alex dreams of a career in politics and the odds are already rather precarious since he is half Mexican. Plus, he has to come to terms with his sexuality.
Prince Henry has always known he was gay but coming out doesn’t seem like an option. Getting the British Royal court to accept that their most eligible bachelor, their Prince Charming is gay is no easy task.
Red, White & Royal Blue was the 2019 winner of the Goodreads Choice Awards. I was looking for a light easy romance and it seemed perfect. And yet it didn’t have me gushing as I’d thought it would.
The story is told in the third person, mostly through Alex’s perspective. He’s smart and witty with a quicksilver tongue. I loved how clear and focussed he was in what he wanted from life. That said, Henry remained my favourite. I loved every bit of his understated, rather geeky persona and his subtle, very British sense of humour. I loved how keyed in he was about queer history. McQuiston weaves it in beautifully in the back and forth conversations he has with Alex.
There are a host of side characters. The First Family McQuiston builds up is delightfully warm and mushy.
As far as the British characters go, she was a tad bit unfair, settling for caricaturish stereotypes in her attempt at getting to the quintessential British stiff upper lip. All apart from Henry of course, who I thought was quite perfect.
My major beef with the book, and this was a big one, was the over liberal use of swear words. Despite being pegged as Young Adult fiction, it was peppered with the f*** word. That rankled. I couldn’t come to terms with families talking like that to each other not just in moments of stress but even otherwise.
Also, the rendezvous of the two lovelorn boys seemed highly improbable. I cannot see how two such prominent people could just ‘slip away’ during public events. However, I’m willing to forgive that in the name of creative license.
Those two factors took away from my enjoyment of the book, however, I do see why a romantic young adult would find it quite perfect.
Last thought: A mushy read for romantic YAs.
Book: The Book of Negroes
Author: Lawrence Hill
After a bit of break, I’m back to reading African American history.
Most of us have a vague idea of how scores of Africans were sold in European and American markets. We are familiar with slavery through books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, in a more glorified form, in Gone with the Wind. We read these books, ‘It was terrible’, we say, we shake our heads and then we get on with life.
It’s not until a book like The Book of Negroes comes along, that the horror of it all sinks in. In its entirety. It’s then that we truly begin to understand, just a little bit, what it would have been like.
For that, this book, is a must read.
Set in the 18th-19th century, we hear the story in flashback through Aminata Diallo, daughter of a talented midwife and a jeweller.
While on her way home from a neighbouring village, 11-year-old Aminata is kidnapped. Then on begins a long and arduous journey for her. Along with a group of other village folk, she is yoked by the neck and made to walk.
Aminata befriends a young boy Chekura who is helping the kidnappers. He is sympathetic towards her, bringing her food and water.
After months of walking, goaded along with whip-lashes from their captors they reach the sea. They are then loaded onto ships that sail to Carolina. Ironically, Chekura is also put in along with other Africans, becoming a prisoner himself.
Aminata survives the harrowing ship voyage as also a slave rebellion and lands on the shores of Carolina. She is sold off to Appleby, a ranch owner. She’s a smart young girl, quick to pick up skills, eager to learn new ways and new languages. She has picked up midwifery from her mother and that renders her invaluable.
However, not her intellect, nor any of her skills can protect her from her fate as a slave. She’s beaten and raped and separated from her husband; her child sold off. She moves from Carolina to Nova Scotia and she survives, as does her dream of going back to her village in Africa.
What I thought of it
The Book of Negroes lays bare the cruel practice of Slavery in all detail. It talks about how people from Africa were kidnapped, coerced, shipped, treated worse than animals and bought and sold across America.
The writing is lucid and flows easily. It’s simple and it kept me turning the pages. It is the story that remains the hero of the book. Aminata’s journey is execptional and yet hundreds of millions of blacks faced the same fate, cheated over and over again of their right to exist as humans. Despite its heart-breaking subject, the book manages to maintain an underlying upbeat spirit, perhaps due to it’s protagonist.
Aminata’s character embues the book with optimism, rendering it readable
Right from the beginning it is clear that Aminata is a gifted child. She grows up to be smart and intelligent. Her skill at mid-wifery, her mother’s gift to her, and then later, the gift of education put her in a league above the other black people. It ensures for her, a better life than most others. Which is why the book doesn’t turn into a weep-fest. It did however make me wonder how much worse it would have been for the vast majority of other slaves who were illiterate, uneducated and barely skilled. Would they have had any bright spots in their lives at all? That was a frightening thought.
The African Diversity
We often make the mistake of clubbing the entire African continent as one entity. The book brought home its diversity. It was good to be reminded that there were multiple tribes with multiple languages, dialects and religions. Not every slave could even understand what another one was saying. Also, it was Africans who were capturing other Africans. So to think that all of them were victims would be wrong.
In the end the book is about humanity
On the surface of it, this is a story of the white man against the black, and yet in the end it is about respecting another human, no matter his race or colour. Also, to lay the blame solely at the door of Europeans or Americans would be wrong. Almost every race, at some point, has people trying to prove their supremacy and to undermine others for power or money. Like I pointed out earlier, a lot of Africans were involved in the slave trade too. Closer home in India, the caste system was just a variation of slavery as were practices like bonded labour. None of us are truly exempt from blame.
The book is a reminder that every human deserves to be respected.
Last thought: Read this for a glimpse of African history.
Book: The Book of Fate
Author: Parinoush Saniee
Translated by: Sara Khalili
Young Massoumeh moves with her family to Tehran from the small conservative town of Qum. The older daughter from among five siblings (three brothers and two sisters), Massoumeh loves to study. Her father supports her, however her mysogynistic brothers and her mother are against it, only wanting her to get married. Insulting and hitting the girls of the family isn’t unusual.
Even with her limited freedom, modern Tehran, is exciting to Massoumeh. It’s here that she finds her best friend, Parvaneh, and also her first innocent crush.
Soon enough, her crush is discovered by her family. She’s beaten up mercilessly and married off to a man she hasn’t even seen.
Her luck turns when she finds that her husband is way more modern than her own family. He is a communist dissident struggling against the oppressive rule of the Shah of Iran.
He champions the equality of women and, to Massoumeh’s delight, he pushes her to further her studies. They have two sons and life seems good For a while but then her husband is found out by the Shah’s men and is caught and persecuted.
Left alone to care for her children Massoumeh soldiers along through the revolution. She finds a job to support her small family even as she continues to dream about finishing her University education. Even after her husband is released, life remains a struggle for her.
The Book of Fate is Massoumeh’s story as she navigates life in turbulent Iran.
Originally written in Persian, this book has been translated into a dozen languages. It was banned in Iran for a while.
The Book of Fate is as much a story of Iran as it is that of young Massoumeh.
The story of Iran
I was only vaguely aware of the history of Iran. The Book of Fate proved to be the perfect way to get to know it. Massoumeh’s fate is entwined with that of her country through her husband and her children.
There’s nothing poetic or romantic about the narrative. So if you’re expecting Shafakish descriptions you will be disappointed. The Book of Fate tells of life in Iran as it is without making it the focus of the book. Through Massoumeh we watch the Communists and the Conservative Islamic Leaders come together in the the revolution against the Shah of Iran. We watch as it becomes a success and Khomeini comes to power. And then we watch the crumbling of communist dreams and their terrible persecution under this new conservative rule. That is followed by the Iraq war.
I liked Massoumeh. She isn’t a revolutionary. She’d have been happy not having anything to do with the politics of the country. She doesn’t want her husband or her sons and daughter to become great rebels. She isn’t special or brave or heroic in a Joan-of-Arc kind of way.
And yet she is.
She is brave in an ‘every-day every-woman’ kind of way. She is modern in her thinking, in that she understands the importance of education, she understands the need for women to be independent. When her husband is taken prisoner she doesn’t mope around, she doesn’t reach out for help to either her family or her in-laws. She goes out and she finds work. She braves the jibes and barbs that come her way. And she takes care of her family. She is kind and thoughtful. And that is her strength. Her growth from a shy timid teenager to an independent woman was nothing short of miraculous.
She has flaws.
Of course she has flaws. Her upbringing and her years of conditioning hold her back. Like I said, she isn’t a revolutionary. She is conscious of what society thinks of her and expects of her, and she makes sure she remains a ‘good’ girl at all times.
To me, that made her relatable. I might not have agreed with her decisions (specially the ending of the book) but I could see where she was coming from.
This isn’t a book about the repression of women
A lot of reviews peg this one as a book on the repression of women in a patriarchal society. That would be true but only to a small extent. I like to think of it as a book about the triumphs of a woman in a patriarchal society. I’d like to see it more as an uplifting read than a heartbreaking one. Yeah there are heartbreaks, lots of them, and struggles too and yet I didn’t need to pity Massoumeh.
Last Thought: Read it for Massoumeh’s story and for a crash course in the history of Iran.
Book: Such a Fun Age
Author: Kiley Reid
As part of my pledge to read more books from diverse authors, I picked up Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. I had seen it on more than one book list while I was trying to build my own. That, and the title which sounded light and happy, lead me to pick this one. Although the book wasn’t exactly light and happy, it wasn’t heavy either, it took me by surprise.
Such a Fun Age tells the story….
….of Emira – a black twenty-five-year-old, aimless and unambitious, yet to find her calling in life. In the meanwhile, she holds two part-time jobs, one of which is that of a baby-sitter for Alix Chamberlain’s three-year-old daughter Briar.
One evening while Emira is at the supermarket with Briar, a security guard detains her suspecting her of having kidnapped the child. A panicked Emira calls Briar’s father even as a man, Kelly, videotapes the incident.
The episode shakes up Alix who decides that she needs to take a greater interest in Emira’s life. Her stilted attempts at starting up a conversation puzzle Emira who has no need for this friendship. All she cares for is Briar, who she has a real and deep affection for.
Alix’s interest gradually grows into something bordering on a crush as she constantly tries to talk to Emira, gifts her expensive wine, tries to decode her interest in music, and looks through her phone when she isn’t around.
Things come to a head when Alix crosses all boundaries to ‘manage’ Emira’s life.
Such a Fun Age is hard to review, not because it doesn’t have much to say but because it evokes too many thoughts and you just want to talk about it rather than analyse it objectively. Which is why this will be more of a book discussion than a book review.
Bear with me, please.
We get to read the book through two perspectives, Emira’s and Alix’s
The difference between the two women couldn’t have been more stark and it’s not just about them being black or white. While Alix is a social media influencer, Emira doesn’t even have social media accounts. Alix is wealthy while Emira worries about her insurance. Reid brings out the difference beautifully, almost as if there can be no meeting point between the two.
That’s what it is at the beginning of the book.
Emira is as dismissive of Alix as Alix is of her. If anything, she doesn’t quite like her because Alix seems to prefer only her younger, calmer daughter while Emira’s ‘favourite human being’ is Briar, the older one precocious and talkative as she is.
While Alix changes after the supermarket incident, Emira doesn’t. On the contrary, she tries to pull away further because she doesn’t see babysitting as a permanent position. That is frustrating for Alix who is desperate to befriend her.
Also thrown into the mix, is Alix’s rather complicated childhood
When Alix was young, her family comes into a sudden inheritance and her parents go on a spending spree, to her acute embarrassment. Over the years, she learns to be comfortable with her wealth to the extent that she begins to take it, as well as the privilege that comes with it, for granted. Also, she turns into a bit of a snob. Of course all of this, without being aware of it.
When she sets about befriending Emira she starts looking at herself from Emira’s perspective and perhaps, on some subconscious level, the discomfort with her privilege returns, even while at a conscious level she remains unaware of it. With that, returns the embarrassment of her wealth. She takes great pains to convince Emira that she doesn’t splurge, that she’s a thrifty shopper, not that Emira is bothered at all.
Reid’s writing brings out all of that without actually mentioning any of it. That is exactly what good writing is. The undertones, the conscious and sub conscious motivations are all there for the reader to pick up on.
I have to talk about the incident at the supermarket
The reactions of the various characters to the incident took me by surprise. Emira has no wish to share the video with the world. The racist slur bothers her, but what troubles her more is her lack of a proper job which she feels would have given her some sort of standing in life, protecting her from incidents like that one. ’This wouldn’t have happened if you had a real f****** job,’ she muses to herself. In fact she is more worried that Briar would be taken from her than apalled at the incident itself. Perhaps because the scenario may not have been unusual for her. And that is just sad.
Alix and Kelly, (the man who records the incident) on the other hand are keen for some kind of a redressal. Alix stops shopping at the supermarket while Kelly suggests legal action or getting the guard dismissed, or going to the media.
I liked that this incident didn’t become the central point of the book in the way I had thought it would. That would have been predictable. Rather, it triggers something entirely unexpected.
The friendships in Such a Fun Age
Alix has a set of three friends who are almost cliquey in the way they interact. Even though Alix reaches out to them for every decision, specially when it has to do with Emira, I didn’t get a warm vibe from the group. It was somewhat similar with Emira who also has three friends she hangs out with. However, it is only with one of them (Zara) that I see a real connection.
….was a little tame but then it was somewhat in keeping with Emira’s character. It would have been odd if she had suddenly turned into an ambitious go-getter with a high-flying job. However, with her knack for children, I’d seen her as a full-time nanny. Come to think of it the job Alix offered her was quite perfect. But I’ll let that go.
If you like books that explore diversity you might want to read my review of Girl, Woman, Other.
Good Intentions aren’t everything
That is my biggest takeaway. The worst situations in the book arise from the best intentions. There’s the white woman who calls for the security guard at the supermarket with the intention of protecting Briar.
Then there’s Alix who feels her interest in Emira gives her some kind of right to manage her life. So consumed is she with her own good intentions that she doesn’t bother to check if that’s what Emira wants. In fact, no one is bothered about what Emira wants, not Alix or Kelly or Tamra (Alix’s friend who is also black and so feels she can have a say in Emira’s ‘upliftment’).
Before I wrap up I have one small complaint (there always is one, right?)
It’s the dialogue. Look at this: “Why you tryna play one-drop rule right now?” I don’t know if this is how youngsters these days talk to each other but it didn’t work for me.
Also, I still haven’t been able to work out the thought behind the title.
That aside, Such a Fun Age is a wonderfully layered account making it hard to put characters into protagonist-antagonist brackets. It talks about race and class and privilege without getting heavy or preachy.
If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you’ve reviewed it leave your link in the comments and I’ll drop by.
Last Thought: If books on race and class interest you, this one is a must-read.